An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge #ReadingBeryl23

Back when first published in 1989, this was my first exposure to Beryl Bainbridge, and it would be some years before I read another, which was when the paperback of Every Man For Himself (later re-read and reviewed here) was published in 1996/7. Then another big gap until I started reading her again in 2011 leading to my first BB Reading Week in 2012.

AABA is perhaps an ideal introduction to Bainbridge, falling as her last novel written from experiences of her own for a while, she was moving on to her historical novels which would dominate from then on. The 1950 theatrical setting makes it easier to get into than some of her novels, although her protagonist Stella is rather spiky and detached. I’ve long wanted to re-read AABA, so how did I find my return to it?

A prologue begins at the novel’s end, presaging some tragedy yet to come. Meredith, the company’s actor/director and theatre manager Rose are discussing what happened in elliptical phrases, there are hints, but at this stage we don’t know what will happen, except it involves the ‘girl’ somehow.

She is Stella Bradshaw, about sixteen years old. She lives with her Uncle Vernon and Lily, who is not specified as her aunt in the novel, in their rooming house. Vernon is at a loss with what to do with Stella, who has failed her school certificate, but gets her an interview at the local theatre repertory company. She’s taken on as an assistant stage manager, but classed as a student, so they don’t have to pay her, working alongside young Geoffrey under veteran stage manager Bunny’s eye. Stella is rubbish at most things, but in their production of Caesar and Cleopatra, she gets cast as Ptolemy, and a reporter comes to talk to her as an up and coming actress. Meredith coaches her what to say, but the reporter isn’t really interested, dragging her off to the cinema down the road, where he sticks her hand in his trousers. Stella is detachedly curious about whether this is normal – did it happen to her acting co-stars too? This cracked me up!

Trousers, she now realised, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of themselves might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.

Stella meanwhile has fallen for Meredith in a full-on crush, but she can’t work out why he’s more interested in Geoffrey. It takes the arrival of P L O’Hara who is to take on the Captain Hook / Mr Darling role in their Christmas production of Peter Pan to liven things up, and as you might guess, he takes advantage of Stella’s youth and inexperience, and I’m not going to explain any more of the plot.

Bainbridge herself worked at the Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool at sixteen and used her experience there to inform all the backstage goings on in the novel. She frequently had to dodge the attentions of the male actors, who were a lusty lot it seems. Her biographer Brendan King tells of one actor who used to spank her with a rolled-up newspaper every time she, as a similarly uncredited ASM, came to call ‘Overture and beginners’. One senses that Beryl could handle herself better than Stella perhaps!

Stella is very much an observer, like many of Bainbridge’s heroines, she’s often passive and detached. But she can also be ornery; given a task by Bunny to measure out a prop doorway, she can’t do the maths and doesn’t bother doing it. Demanding a bath on a Wednesday on her return from the theatre, Uncle Vernon is forced to assess the changes in Stella since starting work at the theatre.

There was more to baths, he thought uneasily, than cleanliness.

The bath episode is a rare example of where Bainbridge takes her time to tell her story, which emphasises the trials of living in a 1950s working class house with one bathroom between many and a tricky geyser to get the water hot. You really understand why it is such an inconvenience to Uncle Vernon. Now he’s an interesting character, having taken Stella in and doing his best for her over the years. He is fascinated by watching her grow up, but I’ll deliberately stay schtum about Stella’s parents.

I think that I found this novel much darker on rereading it. The sense of impending tragedy looms large, and there are more psychological layers than previously experienced. It remains one of my favourite Beryls, alongside her more comedic earlier ones and early historical ones.

I never managed to see the 1995 film directed by Mike Newell – which isn’t available on a standard DVD in the UK – but thanks to Madame Bibi Lophile (who also reviewed this novel here), she found an upload to YouTube. Starring Hugh Grant as Meredith, and Alan Rickman as PL O’Hara, and introducing Georgina Cates as Stella, it has a pretty stellar British supporting cast including: Alun Armstrong as Uncle Vernon, Rita Tushingham as Lily, Prunella Scales as Rose the theatre manager, a lugubrious Peter Firth as Bunny, and many more as the actors. I enjoyed it a lot, and will store that link for future rewatching.

At 197 pages, this novel also meets the criteria for Novellas in November too.

Source: Own copy. Abacus paperback, 197 pages. Buy at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

8 thoughts on “An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge #ReadingBeryl23

  1. Anokatony says:

    In my latest rediscovery of Beryl Bainbridge, I have concentrated on her earlier comedic works rather than her later historical dramas. ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ looks like it may be her transition novel. This is one I might give a try.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Oh, this sounds more of a perfect intro to BB than the posthumous novel I was half-considering! There were a few British rep theatre-set novels set around this mid-century period, weren’t there – Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly leaps to memory, for example, and Dodie Smith’s It Ends with Revelations.

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